Muslim Charities, Under Scrutiny, Feel Besieged

Eight Muslim nonprofit groups under investigation by Treasury Department for ties to terrorism.

BY: Bob Smietana


(RNS) For the staff at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in Richardson, Texas, the month of Ramadan is the busiest time of the year. It's a time when many Muslim pay their zakhat, or alms -- a charitable gift equal to 2.5 percent of their net worth and one of the five pillars of Islam. On Monday, Dec. 3, that meant the staff was working late.

"We are working long hours, from 8 in the morning to midnight just to keep up with all of the donations," said John Janney, the foundation's assistant director for communication. "We have had to hire extra personnel to keep up. It's pretty much business as usual, though there is no such thing as business as usual after Sept. 11."

All of that changed at midnight on Monday, when President George Bush ordered the assets of the foundation frozen and their headquarters in Richardson was closed down, along with offices in Bridgeview, Ill., Paterson, N.J., and San Diego. The foundation, which raised $13 million in 2000, is accused of raising funds for the terrorist group Hamas.

"The Holy Land Foundation claims that the money it solicits goes to care for needy Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip," Bush said Tuesday. "Money raised by Holy Land Foundation is used by Hamas to support schools that indoctrinate children to grow up to become suicide bombers."

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill accused the Holy Land Foundation of masquerading as a charity, "while its primary purpose is to fund Hamas. This is not a case of one bad actor stealing from the petty-cash drawer and giving the stolen money to terrorists. This organization exists to raise money in the United States to promote terror."

Holy Land Foundation president Shukri Abu-Baker denied that the group has any ties to terrorism, or that it had violated any U.S. laws. A statement released by the foundation criticized the government actions as being anti-Muslim, saying "the decision by the U.S. government to seize the charitable donations of Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan is an affront to millions of Muslim Americans who entrust charities like ours to assist in fulfilling their religious obligations." Another statement, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other U.S. Muslim organizations also criticized the actions, saying that they "could create the impression that there has been a shift from a war on terrorism to an attack on Islam."

In Bridgeview, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large Muslim population, passersby watched as federal agents removed documents from the foundation's offices. Mohammad Ibra told the Associated Press that he donated $50 a month to the charity and had gotten thank-you notes from Palestinian families the foundation has assisted. "There's just no way they're involved with terrorists," Ibra told the AP. "They send medicine and clothes and money to poor people in Palestine."

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